Two reflections on the state of politics

Published online 30 August 2012.

(also posted at Firedoglake and Voices on the Square)

Every once in a while the “alternative Internet” features pieces which reveal in full clarity why we get so little out of the political system.  Two of these were published yesterday:

1) Gabriel Kolko’s piece in Counterpunch (“The New Deal Illusion” — 8/29/12) largely discusses the New Deal as a set of ideas germinating under Herbert Hoover and achieving some degree of fruition under FDR.  It would seem that none of this stuff was ultimately successful in ending the Great Depression.  Kolko says of Hoover:

The Depression was more than a match for him, and it proved more than a match for Roosevelt. Basically, it was the Second World War that got the U. S. out of the Great Depression completely.

Kolko criticizes the commonly-held, simplified version of history that credits the Democrats for the New Deal as follows:

The problem–among others– is that the general political community rarely reads their rather detailed academic monographs.  But the persistence of the notion that somehow the Democrats are somehow better than Republicans is also related to the fact that the GOP more often falls under the sway of yahoos, making the Democrats seem less objectionable.

Of course, one can object to Kolko’s portrayal of history by noting that both the Great Depression and World War II were periods in which Democrats controlled the White House, and that we currently are in a period in which yahoos control the Republican Party.  But there’s more at stake here than Kolko’s efforts to put the Democrats in their places as members of a “conservative” party.  The overarching problem foregrounded by Kolko is one of the limits of social technology:

Until the war had begun. WPA or not, unemployment remained very high.  By 1939 the New Deal’s social technology was exhausted and there was only a confused debate between Democrats about the virtues–or lack of them–of laissez faire and competition versus the panoply of ideas behind “planning“ and control of competition.

World War II brought the sort of economic restructuring necessary to end the Great Depression, while at the same time extending the lifespan of the (global) capitalist system.  Of course the Republicans wouldn’t have done any better had they been in power.

Here I’d like to point out the interaction between politics and the capitalist system, using my interpretation of Kees van der Pijl’s history of capitalism (in my second diary here at Kos).  I conceived of four stages of capitalism: a) agricultural capitalism, b) industrial capitalism, c) consumer capitalism, and d) neoliberalism.

In this interpretation, the Great Depression appears as an interim period between stages b) and c), when the contradictions of industrial capitalism had come to a head yet the heyday of consumer capitalism was yet to come.  Kolko’s history points out that the politicians of our capitalist democracy appear to be “going along for the ride” when foregrounded as actors in the history of capitalism.  They protect the capitalist system and have some effect in mitigating its most serious crises, but that’s all they do.

2) A further elucidation of the limitations of our politicians also appeared yesterday in Matt Stoller’s piece in Naked Capitalism, “Why The Big Issues Are Missing From The 2012 Race” (8/29/12).  Stoller’s argument is that politicians care about getting elected and re-elected, but not as a first priority.  The political class’s first priority is retaining the perks it is granted for its performance of services for those with the money to pay for them.  Here’s how he phrases it:

…most US politicians by and large would like to win elections, but they aren’t going to jeopardize a future revenue stream or even their membership in the club of the global elite to do so. This is true for all parts of the political ecosystem, from politicians to staffers to campaign operatives to pollsters to consultants. While losing a race isn’t fun, if you rock the boat and lose, you’re done.

This, then, explains the conservative nature of governance in this era.  The political class in America is as uniform as the sources of money which fund its collective life ambitions, from private careers to public careers to retirement.  When I mock the popular notion that Barack Obama is some kind of leftist, I am merely holding Obama up as an example of the uniformity of the system’s political class.  There are antipublic conservatives and corporate conservatives, and what they agree upon is conservatism.  There’s a website for it now, Obama the Conservative, which is mostly fair, and unfair mostly in its singling out of Barack Obama in a sea of political conservatism.

Once again, now in the age of neoliberalism, the politicians of today’s capitalist democracy can be seen as “going along for the ride” when foregrounded against the history of capitalism.  Since, however, the golden age of capitalism has come and gone, leaving behind a consumer society in decline, we appear to have a rocky road ahead.  A terminal crisis for the capitalist system will at some later point become once again a thinkable proposition.

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